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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Immigration History

  Many posts have discussed immigration.

“I think that we have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door.”

 It was uttered by Sen. Ellison DuRant Smith, a South Carolina Democrat, on April 9, 1924. And it helped set the stage for a historic change in U.S. immigration law, which imposed strict national quotas for newcomers that would shape the United States’ ethnic makeup for decades to come.

Immigration was perceived as a problem a century ago, too. Large numbers of migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flocked to the United States during the first two decades of the 20th century, sparking a public outcry over unfamiliar intruders who lacked the Northern and Western European blood of previous migrant cohorts.

On May 15, 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which would constrain immigration into the United States to preserve, in Smith’s words, America’s “pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock.”

“It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries,” Smith continued, speaking of America not 40 years after the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York harbor, with its open arms for all humankind. Immigration, Smith noted, should be shaped “to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.”


In 1910, two years after the debut of Zangwill’s play [The Melting Pot], geneticist Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. It provided the intellectual grounding for America’s increasingly overt xenophobia.

In “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics,” Davenport wrote that Italians had a “tendency to crimes of personal violence,” that Jews were prone to “intense individualism and ideals of gain at the cost of any interest,” and that letting more of them in would make the American population “darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial,” as well as “more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality.”

Harry Laughlin, another Cold Spring Harbor researcher, told members of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee in 1922 that these new immigrants brought “inferior mental and social qualities” that couldn’t be expected “to raise above, or even to approximate,” those of Americans descended from earlier, Northern and Western European stock.